July is Disability Pride Month, which leaves me with complicated feelings. I love that it has its own month. I love the overlap which happens at the margins of June and July where we recognize that one can be part of 2SlGBTQIA+ communities and disability communities. Issues of sexuality and gender are too often dismissed (at best) by ableist systems, so the recognition of this shared and overlapping space is affirming. July is also when several moments of resistance and revolution in disability history took place, so it makes sense that this is the month we honour the work of those who came before us.
But what *isn’t* happening in July for most of us in the northern hemisphere? School. Disability Pride Month happens at a time where schools don’t have to recognize it, let alone celebrate it. And let’s be honest: in a system essentially designed to bring disabled children as close to “typical” as possible, where disability is framed as something to be “overcome,” where we don’t want to give too much support because we want disabled students to “push themselves and not be lazy and accept their limitations,” the idea of being a proud disabled person is a pretty foreign concept.
Since we can’t have Disability Pride Month at school, I’ve started sharing videos and articles on my Twitter account. I’m selecting resources that I think are good starting points for educators who want to learn more from disabled communities, and who want to better support their students in both their academics and their wellbeing. This is summer professional development, 280 characters at a time. I will never claim to be an expert on disability (or any other) issues; I am simply curating resources and offering space to have conversations about issues on which we have for too long only been offered an extremely limited, deficit-based, perspective. Yes, deficit-based. As much as your Special Education AQ instructors have encouraged you to adopt strength-based approaches, when the entire system is built on the assumption that disability is a problem that needs fixing, those words ring hollow.
Now, why am I writing this on my blog that is ostensibly dedicated to issues of consent? That’s a sadly simple question to answer: one of the most common ways of “fixing” disability is through compliance training. Disabled people, from very early childhood, are expected to allow people (medical professionals, parents and other family members, personal care workers, educators) to manipulate their bodies and behaviours whether or not they are interested in doing so. The idea of saying “no” or “not yet,” or “okay, but first I need …” are pathologized as acts of non-compliance or misbehaviour, and are not seen as acts of personal autonomy — even in adulthood.
We insist, under the auspices of safety and classroom management, that children ask to go to the washroom, and many adults continue to use this as a form of control and humiliation. This is an all-kid issue, but disabled children will experience more hardship from the implementation of this control in the classroom. Bladder and bowel control are compromised in all kinds of disabilities and chronic illnesses, as well as being side effects from medications. People with focus and attention issues often unwittingly put off the early sensations telling them they need to go, and find themselves in urgent need of a washroom break. I say “people” here and not children, because adults experience this as well. Even after 14 years in the k12 school system, with all the “well, you should have planned better” messaging they’ve gotten, they will still find themselves caught by surprise at their VERY URGENT need to pee.
“Well, if I know a student has this issue, exceptions can be made,” I hear some of you thinking. And, yes, that is the most common way we address disability and chronic illness in schools. But that requires that a child’s medical privacy be breached for our comfort. Rather than look at the rules we’re uncomfortable bending without “documented” reasons, we strip children and youth (and later, adults) of the right to have their bodies be none of our business.
This comes up with elevator use, as well. In schools that are equipped with elevators (and yes, there are still many that are not), students must have administrator permission to use them.
“That satisfies some aspect of privacy, no? If only the admin team knows, that’s not so bad!”
Sure. It’s not so bad. But are vice-principals and principals accompanying these students on the elevator each time it’s used? Or are students in the position of answering to teachers and other school staff who see them using the elevator and demand to know why.
I hear more rumbling. Some of you are thinking that you’d know a student in need of an elevator if you saw one. Chair, crutch, rollator users are not generally singled out by those policing elevator use, it’s true. But are you going to ask a kid recovering from pneumonia or long COVID to justify their elevator use? Arthritis acting up on a particularly humid day? Or any one of many disabilities and chronic (or acute!) illnesses/pain disorders that you can’t see?
“But how do we make sure it’s not being exploited?”
Why is this always our concern? No, really. Why are we ALWAYS so much more concerned with what few accessibility measures we have in this world being exploited than we are in ensuring that everyone who needs accessibility measures has access to them?
Disability support in schools is framed as a scarcity model: we only have so much support to go around, so we can’t just hand out help willy nilly. What would we do if someone ACTUALLY needed it, when we gave it all away to someone who just wasn’t trying hard enough? This framing is so harmful, and only in small part because we have NO IDEA who actually needs what, or how much, or when. As educators, we should not be the ones who get to decide if a young person is disabled or impaired “enough” to access a resource that could better support them.
Imagine if we approached accessibility from a place of abundance, and from the assumption that every young person can benefit from the support we have been rationing all this time. Sure, some of this takes money we’re told we don’t have. Some of it takes time we believe we don’t have. But a lot of it takes a change in how we understand our role, and in how we understand disability. If we’re less focused on trying to force children into adapting to contexts that will never fully work for them and instead try to meet those children where they are and adapt our way of working with them, a lot of us would have more energy, more time. In no way am I arguing that anything I’ve written will transform a system built with the idea that disability shouldn’t exist. But while this is the system we have, what can we do to ensure that the goal of breaking children is met less?
There’s a saying that’s come out of predominantly Black 2SLGBTQIA communities: “No Pride in Policing.” It refers both to the literal impact of police forces in targeting these communities with oppressive violence and to the impact of social policing of Blackness, and of sexual and gender diversity. It is a call to push back against the status quo that would have 2-Spirit, queer, and trans people (and especially Black, Indigneous and non-Black people of colour) disappear from our worlds. This is a statement which fits disability movements as well. Every time someone tries to control your body — when you need to use the washroom, drink some water, use the elevator, sit down when everyone else is standing — they are policing disability. If you’re read as anything other than white, that policing is even more aggressive. Whether or not you’re disabled, your body behaving outside the stated norm is unacceptable.
It’s past time for those of us with some power in these systems to push back, to resist, to uplift. Past time, but not too late. Educators, especially abled educators, please take this month to do some deep learning. Your students and communities need it.